When most people talk about the core, they are referring to abs and six packs built through 1000s of crunches and sit-ups. However, when we talk about the core from a performance and longevity perspective we are referring to the deep stabilising muscles that are designed to maintain functional stability around the spine. These muscles include, the rectus abdomens, multifidus, internal obliques, paraspinals, gluteals, diaphragm and pelvic floor. What this means is that core stability training focuses on exercises that resist excessive motion at the spine, not create it. A strong core is also vital for economic transfer of force to the extremities, optimal hip and shoulder function and helps to reduce the risk of low back pain.
How do we know if we have a reasonable level of core strength? We can do a quick assessment of using the screen below.
Setup with thumbs in line with the forehead for men and in line with the chin for women, ensuring fingers are pointing forwards and hands around shoulder width. Do a push-up and look for the hips and chest rising at the same time. If you struggle with this screen there are a number of reasons why.
Correct breathing and bracing techniques
For quite some time we were taught to pull the belly button into the spine to engage the core when carrying out movement. However, abdominal bracing has become the optimal way to 'stiffen' the core musculature through the use of intra-abdominal pressure. Think of your deep core muscles as a cylinder with the diaphragm making the top of the cylinder and your pelvic floor the bottom. To enable the core to do it's job of resisting motion, this cylinder needs to be full of air to exert outward pressure on this cylinder and thus make it solid.
Correct breathing patterns need to be developed to allow correct use of the diaphragm which closes the top of the cylinder to allow us to use the technique above. Once we can breathe into our belly/low back we can then use abdominal bracing to actively engage the core when required. Imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach and you want to deflect that punch. That's bracing. If you've mastered your breathing, you should be able to do this without holding your breath completely and even apply levels of effort depending on the task. Try the FMS push-up again and note any change.
A multi-planar approach
The next step is to develop core stability using exercises that develop strength in resisting motion as mentioned above. However, most people focus on the muscles on the front of the body using planks and roll-outs. These exercises definitely have value but we need to look at developing ability across other planes of motion we may experience in sport or life. To make this easy, core stability exercises can be broken down into 4 types.
Anterior (anti-extension):Teaches the body to resist excessive lumbar extension
Posterior (anti-flexion): Teaches the body to resist excessive lumbar flexion
Rotary (anti - lumbar rotation): Resist excessive lumbar rotation
Lateral (anti – lateral flexion): Resist lateral flexion
Above are examples of beginner exercises to master before progressing on to more advanced exercises that incorporate multiple types of core stability and/or shoulder and hip stability to challenge the body further.
Focus on quality movement of quantity and try to cover all 4 planes of movement in a week. When it comes to static holds, short bursts for reps are much more beneficial than aiming to hold something for 20 mins. So doing 4-6 10 second holds with 5-10 second break between each rep for a single set, means quality remains, and you're still able to contract the core more forcefully. Once the basics have been mastered, they can be utilised as warm-up/activation exercises using low volume/intensity.